Joefromchicago was straight on the case here yesterday to comment on the death of Jörg Haider, the charismatic far right leader who has left such an imprint on Austrian politics these last two decades.
Haider was the scourge of Austria, and his self-inflicted death by speeding will not be mourned by many democrats. Unfortunately though, his death does little to stop the renewed momentum for the extreme right in the country.
After suffering an electoral rout in 2002 and a bitter split in 2005, the Austrian far right has demonstrated its resilience, regrouping and coming right back up again to score its best elections result ever earlier this year. And the story of its resurgence offers a sobering lesson for those European democrats who believed that the far right could be defeated through cooptation. It provides a similar reality check for those who were still betting on the far right’s dependency on rare charismatic leaders.
The new momentum the far right is enjoying in Austria is something of a disappointment really, considering that just a few years ago, it seemed as if it had been brought to its knees.
When the conservatives of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) first formed a coalition government with the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in 2000, it was a highly controversial move, as Joe notes. It abruptly broke with a long-standing tradition of “grand coalitions” between conservatives and social-democrats, which had made for great stability and invariably moderate policies (even if they came with a helping of cultural stagnation and corruption). It drew the country official rebukes from around Europe and from the European Commission and Parliament.
But in a way their move was vindicated, if nothing else, as a short-term tactic. Haider had been successfully demagoguing against the conservative/social-democratic coalition governments from the outside ever since he took over the leadership of the FPÖ in a coup against the party’s liberal frontmen in 1986. In the course of doing so he had boosted his party’s popular vote from 5% to 27%, eventually even eclipsing that of the ÖVP. At some point, some conservatives argued, you have to make a party like that take on government power and see how it does. See how it measures up once it has to take on some responsibility itself.
As an electoral move, it turned out to be gold. It was during its stint in government that infighting broke out within the FPÖ. Newly minted as government ministers, some FPÖ politicians tried to establish a reputation as responsible government partner for the party. Others, centred around Haider, chafed against the new constraints and continued their populist appeals to resentment as if from the outside. Haider and his allies eventually staged another coup in the party, as a result of which the government collapsed. In the early elections that were subsequently held, the party’s support collapsed dramatically, falling from 27% to 10% of the vote.
Through a combination of fate and zeitgeist, the model was soon followed elsewhere.
In the same year that the Freiheitlichen were humiliated in Austria, a rightwing populist named Pim Fortuyn was making waves in the Netherlands. His List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) was riding high in the polls, and when Fortuyn was murdered by an environmental activist days before national elections, the LPF promptly won 17% of the vote. Considering the party had come from nowhere and no other anti-immigrant party had ever broached more than 2% of the vote in the country, this constituted a major upset in the long-established political party system of the country.
After the elections, the winning Christian-Democrats controversially decided to invite the LPF into a three-party government coalition with the right-wing liberal VVD. The colorful personalities that were appointed as ministers for the LPF soon created mayhem. The government collapsed after a record-breaking short term in office, and the LPF got a mere 5% in subsequent early elections in 2003. Had a pattern emerged?
In Austria, the collapse of the FPÖ in the 2002 elections created some hope that the dragon of far right politics had been slain, or at least cut down to size for good. The conservatives again took on the party as government coalition partner, but this time as a distinctly junior partner, with relatively little say. The party splintered when Haider and his allies left in 2005 to establish their own party, the BZÖ. The next elections in 2006 bolstered the hope that inviting the party into government had proven, paradoxically, an effective way of clamping down on its growth. The FPÖ did barely better than in the disastrous 2002 elections, getting just 11% of the vote, while Haider’s new party appeared to flop, receiving just 4%.
Alas, the reprieve has by now been proven to have been as temporary as it was artificial. In 2006 Austria once again returned to its traditional “grand coalition” of conservatives and social-democrats, and as soon as it did, the popularity of the far right started ballooning again. It didnt help that Social-democrat Alfred Gusenbauer was a largely ineffective Chancellor, and that the coalition government collapsed within two years.
The early elections this year turned into a demonstration of strength for a resurgent far right. The FPÖ received 18% of the vote and Haider’s BZÖ outdid expectations (and the polls) by getting an additional 11%. Together they pooled more votes than the FPÖ had ever received. They also succeeded in pushing the two mainstream parties to below two-thirds of the total vote, a first for post-war Austria.
Moreover, the distinction between the two far-right parties was no longer one between moderates and radicals, or populists and nationalists. Heinz-Christian Strache, who took over the leadership of the FPÖ in 2005, is as much of a xenophobic firebrand as Haider ever was.
Strache retooled the party’s message, taking it very much back to basics. His first big success was winning 15% of the vote for the Freiheitlichen in local elections in Vienna when the party was struggling to survive, and he did so by campaigning under slogans like “Vienna must not become Istanbul” and “Jobs instead of immigration”.
The FPÖ’s 2008 slogans were no less telling: “Volksvertreter statt EU-Verräter” (“Representatives of the people instead of EU traitors”); “Unser Land für unsere Kinder – Jetzt geht’s um UNS ÖSTERREICHER” (“Our country for our children – now it’s about US AUSTRIANS”). But then, this is a man who once wrote, “We must not allow .. our daughters to be exposed to the greedy stares and gropings of whole hordes of immigrants.”
If anything, Strache’s party has gone further than Haider’s. It advocated establishing separate health insurance systems for native Austrians and immigrants, and segregating children of immigrants who don’t speak German well into separate “foreigners’ classes”. The only measurable ideological distinction between the two parties is that the BZÖ leans a bit more towards economic populism while the FPÖ is more true to right-wing free market recipes. Overwhelmingly, the enmity between the two parties is about personal rivalries rather than political differences, and they are now likely to dissipate.
Again, there is a parallel with the turn of events in the Netherlands.
By 2003, the LPF seemed to have completely discredited itself, having turned into a parody of itself, a confederacy of dunces. And who could possibly fill the shoes of Pim Fortuyn? Certainly nobody in his party appeared gifted with anything similar to his charismatic appeal.
If anything, it was the far left that appeared to have the wind in its sails next up, as the Socialist Party and its own charismatic leader, Jan Marijnissen, surged up in the polls in late 2002 and again four years later.
But those who were betting that Pim’s success was the product of a confluence of events that would be as impossible to repeat as it had been unprecedented are gritting their teeth now.
First a rebellious MP for the right-wing liberal VVD, Geert Wilders, founded a Freedom Party of his own, and soon rallied a loyal following with an appeal to xenophobia harsher than anything Fortuyn had ever offered. (He also sadly lacks Pim’s sense of humor or his ideological heterodoxy.)
Then, a leadership crisis erupted in the VVD that ended up with the party’s number two, former Immigration and Integration minister Rita Verdonk (who’s equally lacking in the outrageous wit and eclectic views departments), following suit. Her new party is called Proud of the Netherlands, and offers a marginally less radical brand of islamophobia.
By late spring, early summer this year, the two parties were pooling 20-25% of the vote in the polls, better than the LPF ever did.
Lesson one is as simple as it is unnerving. Even leaders as charismatic as Haider and Fortuyn are replaceable. You can gamble on the inherent instability of these populist movements, but it’s not going to yield you more than a temporary reprieve. The resentment and fear they so successfully appealed to remains there to drill into, even for men more mediocre and less glamorous.
Lesson two is that you can prove a point by hauling these parties into government and use it to drain their support as long as the experiment lasts, but it doesn’t achieve any lasting effect. As soon as they are back in opposition and free to wither against the powers that be without consequence, they bounce right back up again.
The ÖVP’s strategy of draining the far right by forcing it to take on responsibility, such a tactical success in the short run, has proven impotent after all. Its not enough. The presence of a far right current is structural.
When Fortuyn was murdered, it was hard not to feel anger or regret, just because for all the vileness of his attacks on Muslims and asylum-seekers, his political assassination represented a much greater evil still. Now that Haider has careened his car off the road driving at twice the speed limit in a residential area, it’s easier to dismiss pieties. His death is arguably the result of the same anti-social recklessness he demonstrated when rabble-rousing against foreigners. But his disappearance from the scene solves nothing. With Wilders instead of Fortuyn and Strache in Haider’s place, the two countries are definitely no better off.